Michael Ganser, Senior Vice President for Cisco Central Europe, predicts: “In manufacturing we will see increasingly intelligent factories with automated systems, robots and sensors monitoring energy consumption, supply chain management and quality.” It is in supply chain management – or logistics – that Cisco currently sees the greatest potential for the Internet of Things. German companies, especially, are looking to optimise their logistics processes by applying state-of-the-art technologies. Ganser continues: “In Central Europe there are already early adopters – car manufacturers, logistics service providers such as the Hamburg Port Authority, sports stadia, and even start-ups – who are benefiting from fourth-generation Internet.”
Vision of the network-connected port
The Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) in its development plan for 2015 sets out a scenario in which the port’s infrastructure is fitted out with miniature processors, all interconnected and communicating with each other: road bridges, for example, capable of counting the number and weight of vehicles passing beneath them and transmitting the data to a centralised evaluation system. When a defined threshold is exceeded an order is automatically generated in the infrastructure management system. Status data from the many infrastructure elements, buildings and technical installations at the port is continuously monitored from a control station. In addition to the technical data, energy consumption figures and relevant environmental factors are also measured, evaluated and optimised.
Successful pilot project
Such complete integration with the Internet of Things remains a vision at present, though the Port of Hamburg has already implemented one application: the “Smart Port Logistics” pilot project has created a unified IT platform combined with mobile applications. It will be used in future to obtain traffic information and call up services around the port from mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones. Using the communications facility, real-time traffic data from the HPA’s Port Road Management System allied to parking information will provide truck drivers with up-to-date, personalised notifications of traffic conditions both on-site and in the area around the port. “We at the Port of Hamburg began adopting state-of-the-art IT at a very early stage. The logical next step is our platform integrating all logistics-related data and services,” explains HPA Managing Director Jens Meier.
Containers controlling their own goods
As a further means of optimising logistics supply chains, researchers are working on intelligent shipping containers. The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), for example, is developing containers which not only ensure that goods reach their destination intact but also, among other functionality, check that they have been correctly loaded. An integrated sensor network enables the containers to record and respond to events around them. They can trigger an alarm if loaded with the wrong articles for example. They identify their contents by means of RFID tags. Near-field communications enable the containers to communicate with each other and with their surroundings, to execute functions such as autonomously requesting a transport vehicle. To ensure that goods are not damaged in transit, sensors additionally measure relevant parameters inside the container. As a further advantage, by using GPS the transport company always knows where the consignment is, and can provide its customers with a regularly updated delivery status. Communications are handled by the global GSM/UMTS standard, which requires no additional infrastructure to operate.
Smart small-parts containers for -intralogistics
Intelligent containers are also being developed for the intralogistics sector, transporting items around on-site such as in manufacturing industry. In early 2013 Würth Industrie Service launched one such intelligent small-parts container capable of recording fill level, article quantity and order data using an integrated camera and automatically transmitting it by RFID technology to the materials management system. The so-called “iBin” is thus able to monitor stock levels inside the container and trigger a repurchase order in good time.
Würth is now looking to develop the container further in a joint project with the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML). Last year the IML presented its own intelligent container: the “inBin”. It is able to autonomously save and process data relating to its load, associated orders, and ambient conditions. Thanks to energy harvesting, the container is autonomous in its energy use. It is also able to locate its own position precisely. Sensors additionally enable it to record ambient conditions and so signal an incorrect ambient temperature for example. InBins not only communicate with each other and organise their own sequencing, they can also communicate directly with human operators via graphical displays or a separate voice module. IML Director Professor Dr. Michael ten Hompel comments: “A few years ago we were dreaming of tagging containers with the kind of computing power used to land a man on the Moon back in 1969. Today we have processors capable of even more: 16- or 32-bit processors with several megahertz clock frequency and hundreds of kilobytes of memory – enough for us to claim to have created a truly intelligent container.”